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5 Approaches to Improve Assessment and Promote Learning

In this entry, part of our ongoing series spotlighting top K-12 strategies proposed by leading authors, you’ll read about five approaches to improving assessment for learning, rather than just assessment of learning. While many would agree that evaluating students’ current knowledge base is essential, the true purpose is to inform instruction and accelerate learning.

How can school leaders and teachers come together to develop principles that place learning above all else? What approaches work best to bring about a culture of learning success in the classroom? By concentrating on accountability and empowerment in educators, can classrooms improve on dated testing and assessment strategies?

Read below to explore five descriptive approaches to the world of assessment, emphasizing organizational shifts and changes in perspective:

1. Exploring assessment for learning

Michael Chiles, author of The CRAFT of Assessment: A whole school approach to assessment of learning

“[CRAFT is] five key principles to explore assessment for learning. The first principle is condense; the second principle is reflect; the third principle is assess; the fourth principle is feed-forward; and the fifth principle is target-driven improvement.

Historically, assessment has been very much a summative approach, and something teachers have used for accountability purposes. This [new] approach is actually about making an assessment for learning and stripping away the historical use of grades, levels, and targets. It focuses purely on ‘What are the fundamentals pupils have understood in terms of the particular concept or process in a subject? Then, what do I need to do in the next stage to reach that particular goal or understand that concept, grasp it, or process it to allow me to move on to the next stage in that learning journey?’”

Listen to the full interview with Michael Chiles: Crafting a New Approach to Assessment

2. A mastery approach with continual assessment

Mark McCourt, author of Teaching for Mastery

“Assessment is interesting in mastery because one of the things that happened in mathematics education, in particular, because of its nature ─ is that over the last 20, 30 years, teachers ask children questions to work out whether the child is doing okay or not.

That’s quite a modern phenomenon because, as teachers, we used to ask children questions to work out, ‘Has my teaching been impactful yet?’ with the view that my teaching can always be impactful; every child can learn well. If they’re not gripping something at the moment, it must be something about me; it must be the teacher. It must be me who has to change.

In a mastery approach, which I often refer to as ‘responsive teaching,’ we’re continually assessing; we’re repeatedly asking children questions so that I, as a teacher, may act differently. Assessment is continual mastery. We’re not particularly interested in summative assessment, grades, and things like that. We’re interested in assessing ‘in the moment’ continuously and responding as a teacher.”

Listen to the full interview with Mark McCourt: Achieving Classroom Mastery Through Responsive Teaching

3. Focusing on improved formative assessment

Bruce Robertson, author of The Teaching Delusion: Why Teaching In Our Schools Isn’t Good Enough (And How We Can Make It Better)

“I think you need to decide what it is that you need to get better at. In the book The Teaching Delusion, I suggest four components of great teaching: pedagogical subject knowledge, teacher-student relationships, direct interactive instruction, and formative assessment. Dylan Wiliam suggests assessment as the thing that all teachers need to focus on improving.

Teachers need to decide what it is they want to focus on developing. That’s one of the problems in schools; there isn’t clarity in that area. You get people focusing on something they don’t really want because somebody else has told them they should. When teachers focus on something that they’ve been told will make a difference, but then it doesn’t, they become disillusioned.”

Listen to the full interview with Bruce Robertson: Confronting the ‘Teaching Delusion’ to Make Schools Better

4. Being mindful about accountability

Kat Howard, author of Stop Talking About Wellbeing: A Pragmatic Approach to Teacher Workload

“In response to being a creature of assessment: ‘I’m going to make a form, and I’m going to make a tick box, and I’m going to ask all my staff how they’re feeling, and then they’re going to tell me they’re feeling fine because people want to give the answers that you want to hear. Then nothing really happens about it.’

It all comes back to the curriculum, wellbeing, teacher workload, and how people feel about the work that they’re doing and connection. There should be accountability in education. Accountability is good. Accountability is healthy. It helps drive us. In the right way, accountability isn’t a negative thing. I think it’s making sure that when you’re mindful, it’s driving what you do, and you’re being informed by it, but you’re not making your decisions because someone is going to tell you it’s the wrong decision later on down the line. It’s your decision.”

Listen to the full interview with Kat Howard: Taking a Pragmatic Approach to Teacher Workload

5. Prioritizing the craft of teaching

Dr. Kulvarn Atwal, author of The Thinking School: Developing a Dynamic Learning Community

“When a principal is under pressure, if they cannot demonstrate at the next inspection that the school has improved, then they can lose their job. When I first started, a hired advisor asked me, ‘What’s your plan?’ I said, ‘I’ve got a great plan.’  ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’re not going to take any formal lesson observations. We’re going to develop our understanding of the craft of teaching. We’re going to engage in research to look at the best out there, understand assessment for learning, and engage our children. We are going to undertake collaborative action research projects with the question of choice related to children. We will support teachers with time and resources, investigate strategies to take risks, collaborate, question, and we’re going to develop our craft.’

She said, ‘You can’t do that. You’d be mad to do that. You’re going to go into every classroom, and you’re going to judge everyone against the scale of outstanding, good, require improvement, or inadequate; and set targets. If you don’t do that, an inspection team will come in, and then, you’re going to be in trouble.’

The value of doing research is it gives you confidence in what you’re doing, and I made the only decision I could, which is to thank her for her time and showed her the door. I went back and started with the original plan.

We’ve picked up every award in the book. We are one of only 34 primary or secondary schools in London with over 2000 schools to receive the Mayor of London Schools for Success award three years in a row.

We were inspected last year. Our teachers were so advanced that there wasn’t an inspection team qualified to assess us by this stage. They could not understand how our children were talking so articulately because they couldn’t see what the teachers were doing.”

Listen to the full interview with Dr. Kulvarn Atwal: What Is a Thinking School?

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